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The Cuban Missile Crisis at a Midwestern University

July 11, 2013 by Reader's Connection

The Translator

In the novel The Translator, Christa (“Kit”) Malone attends a Midwestern university, on a river. I guessed incorrectly that it was Indiana State, swayed no doubt by my visiting Terre Haute while reading the book. Author John Crowley attended IU in Bloomington in the early 1960′s and has said in an interview that for the novel he “shifted that university somewhat to the west, further into the prairie than Indiana.”

The year is 1962. Innokenti Isayevich Falin is a poet, exiled from his Russian homeland, who teaches at the university in the prairie, and with whom Kit Malone feels a connection. They grow closer, and despite Kit’s inexperience with the Russian language, Innokenti asks her to be his translator. And he tells her about his childhood.

Having lost track of his parents in the Russian upheavals earlier in the century, Innokenti fell in with a gang of juvenile thieves and pickpockets. While reading this part of the novel, I thought of Oliver Twist, but Kit was ahead of me.

She had never heard of it, and no one she asked about it then had heard of it, this Dickensian world with no Dickens to make things right, to tie up all the ends. It was real, though; in Russian novels of that time she would later find them mentioned, “ragamuffins” or “urchins” in the background of scenes, you knew who they were if you had been taught to look for them, they were the besprizornye.

That word, besprizornye, meant something “more than homeless.” It meant “without guardian, unsheltered, not cared for.” His background may account for Innokenti’s “invisibility,” the way he can appear beside Kit on campus without her having registered his approach.

Little, BigShe tells him about her own past troubles–which are chronicled movingly in the book–and she wants their relationship to go further than he seems to be willing to let it go. With the coming of the Cuban missile crisis, Kit is drawn into a world of possible betrayals.

The only other Crowley novel I’ve read is the fantasy, Little, Big, or The Fairies’ Parliament, with its family living on the border of another world. The conclusion of that one didn’t work for me, but I had a vision while swimming at the Natatorium, sometime afterward, and things fell into place. I loved the book, and would like to reread it.

The Translator, set in a recent past all our own, with besprizornye rather than elves or fairies, is a wonderful piece of story-telling. I have to admit that I’m puzzled, dissatisfied, by some of what goes on here during the missile crisis. But I’m giving myself time to catch up with the author. Perhaps I should visit the Natatorium. Whether or not I ever catch up, Crowley’s tale has me looking anew at this frightening piece of history.

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